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Published on January 25th, 2011 | by Amy

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The Invisible Bridge: Not Just Another Holocaust Novel

We’ve seen no short­age of Holo­caust sto­ries in lit­er­a­ture and film in the last 50 years. The In­vis­i­ble Bridge is dif­fer­ent. Set dur­ing World War II? Yes. Cen­tered around the lives of Jews who suf­fer great­ly? Yes. But this is a nov­el not so much about tragedy as about hu­man feel­ing. Its soul is that of a grand love sto­ry, and the pages just keep turn­ing.

Julie Or­ringer first came on the scene in 2005 with How to Breathe Un­der­water, a col­lec­tion of beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten but ul­ti­mate­ly con­ven­tion­al short sto­ries. Here, she has moved past the MFA-style un­cer­tain­ty of her ear­li­er work to cre­ate a can’t-put-it-down epic of 624 pages. In the sto­ry of An­dras Levi, based on Or­ringer’s own fam­i­ly, she has found her ma­te­ri­al.

From when we first meet An­dras in Bu­dapest’s opera house be­fore he leaves to start a new life in Paris, we like him. Lat­er there are friends, wom­en, com­mand­ing of­fi­cers, men­tors, sav­iors, and tor­tur­ers, but there is al­ways An­dras, and he keeps us read­ing. He is naïve, of­ten charm­ing­ly so, and his ob­ser­va­tions tend to the wide-eyed and ob­vi­ous, but that seems to be in­ten­tion­al, a self-con­scious qual­i­ty of An­dras, rather than of Or­ringer as a writ­er:

“What a plea­sure it was to fit his key in­to the lock, to open the door to his pri­vate
room. He un­load­ed his gro­ceries on­to the win­dowsill and laid out his draw­ing
sup­plies on the table. Then he sat down, sharp­ened his pen­cil with his knife, and
sketched his view of the Panthéon on­to a blank postal card. On its re­verse he
wrote his first mes­sage from Paris: Dear Ti­bor, I am here! I have a des­per­ate
gar­ret; it’s ev­ery­thing I hoped for. On Mon­day I start school. Hur­rah! Lib­erté,
egalité, fra­ter­nité! With love, An­dras.

As the sto­ry evolves, the voice be­comes much more se­ri­ous, and the nov­el re­veals its true pow­er. Where so many oth­er nov­els of war get lost in the grand scope of tragedy, The In­vis­i­ble Bridge stays per­son­al, con­vey­ing a sense of loss, of hunger, of cold. It is rich with de­tail. It is haunt­ing, rather than over­whelm­ing:

“For years now, he un­der­stood at last, he’d had to cul­ti­vate the habit of blind
hope. It had be­come as nat­u­ral to him as breath­ing. . . It was the in­evitable by-
prod­uct of love, the clear and po­tent dis­til­late of fa­ther­hood.”

If the nov­el stum­bles, it’s in the pac­ing. The pas­sage of time is un­even, and while this might be au­then­tic to the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing through it, it can be dis­ori­ent­ing to read. We get re­al­ly quite set­tled in Paris, and feel as if we have read near­ly an en­tire book be­fore we get to Part Two (of five); then we bare­ly know what’s hit us as we’re whisked through time and space. In the end, though, the ride is thrilling, and may for­ev­er change your view of his­to­ry.

Knopf, 2010, Hard­cov­er, 624 Pages
In pa­per­back Jan­uary 25th from Vin­tage Con­tem­po­raries

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